Explainer: What are the clashes in Syria’s Deraa about?

Fighting has escalated in recent days between government forces and rebels in the key southern province.

Nearly half of the population of the rebel-held district has fled heavy shelling and ground battles, but the UN warns remaining civilians are cut off with dwindling supplies [File: Alaa al-Faqir/Reuters]

Fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels is intensifying near Deraa, in what has been described as the heaviest clashes since the southern eponymous province came under government control three years ago.

Fighting started when government forces fired artillery shells towards the former opposition hub of Deraa al-Balad in tandem with a ground offensive.

Nearly half of the population of the rebel-held district fled the heavy shelling and ground battles, but the United Nations warned remaining civilians are cut off with dwindling supplies.

On Thursday, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said civilians were suffering from “acute shortages” of food, fuel, water and medicines in a “near siege-like” situation.

“The situation is alarming,” Pedersen said.

Here is what you need to know about the conflict:

Why is Deraa important?

Deraa, which borders Jordan and is close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is widely seen as the cradle of the 2011 uprising in Syria, which sparked a decade-long civil war that has killed almost half a million people.

In 2011, young boys who scrawled graffiti against President Bashar al-Assad were detained in Deraa, sparking nationwide protests.

After the demonstrations evolved into war, rebels seized control.

The rebels hung on until 2018. But after weeks of deadly fighting, the Russia-backed regime retook control under a surrender deal.

Moscow had brokered similar so-called “reconciliation” accords in Syria’s second city of Aleppo, as well the Eastern Ghouta region, outside the capital, Damascus.

Under those deals, rebels handed over their heavy weapons and left on buses. But in Deraa, many former opposition fighters stayed behind.

While some did switch sides and join regime forces, others kept their guns and maintained control over several areas.

In the provincial capital, Deraa city, regime forces returned to the northern half, known as Deraa al-Mahatta.

But the southern half, Deraa al-Balad, remained under rebel control.

What sparked the fighting now?

Since the 2018 “reconciliation” deal, Deraa province has seen regular explosions and hit-and-run attacks.

During presidential elections in May – a vote widely criticised by Syria’s opposition – protesters in Deraa al-Balad took to the streets demanding the “fall of the regime”.

The election was held only in the two-thirds of Syria under government control, and there were no ballot boxes in Deraa al-Balad.

After al-Assad celebrated winning his fourth term in power, he promised to return all of Syria to state control.

Residents and activists believe the government wants “revenge”.

“Many people in Deraa al-Balad are wanted by the regime,” said activist Omar al-Hariri.

Which forces are involved?

In late July, some of the fiercest clashes to rock the province since government forces returned left 32 dead, including 12 civilians, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

The government seized farmland outside Deraa al-Balad before the fighting largely subsided and Russian-mediated talks began.

But Hariri said pro-Damascus forces continued to shell the area “to exhaust fighters who only have light weapons”.

Mohammad al-Abdallah, director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, said Iran was pushing Damascus to bolster its forces there.

Deraa is close to the Golan Heights, occupied by Tehran’s arch-foe Israel. Pro-Iran fighters are deployed in parts of the province.

Russia, meanwhile, has sought to boost its influence by backing the Syrian army’s Fifth Corps, which has absorbed many ex-rebels.

“Competition between the Iranians and the Russians over areas of influence in Syria” was also at play, al-Abdallah added.

Hariri said residents in Deraa al-Balad now face a bleak choice.

“We have two options,” he said. “Let the Fifth Corps deploy with Russia pulling the strings, or face a sudden onslaught from regime forces.”

What is the effect on civilians?

The UN’s envoy, Geir Pedersen, warned on Thursday of his “growing concern” at the situation, calling for an end to the fighting and unimpeded humanitarian access.

About 24,000 of Deraa al-Balad’s 55,000 residents have fled to surrounding areas or regime-controlled parts of the city, the UN humanitarian agency says.

“Civilians are suffering with acute shortages of fuel, cooking gas, water and bread,” Pedersen said. “Medical assistance is in short supply to treat the injured”.

Government forces encircle the district with entry limited to a single road with checkpoints.

Abu al-Tayb, a media activist in Deraa al-Balad, said people were “at the mercy” of al-Assad’s forces.

“Sometimes only women and children are allowed to take the road, and sometimes they close it off completely,” he said.

He said flour had run out, the regime had cut off the water supply to the main storage tank, and there were regular power cuts.

“We’re making do with very little,” he said.

Source: News Agencies